Writing on the Wild Side #4: A Blizzard of Birds
By Mike Denny:
February is here and with it, this year, is warm weather. Close to seventy degrees Fahrenheit last weekend; wildflowers are blooming, insects are out, but the most spectacular event is the arrival of the Snow Geese from southern California near the Salton Sea. These beautiful white native geese winter in northern Mexico and southern California; as the last few days of January role around, thousands of the big geese migrate north through the central valley of California making stops to rest and feed around Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Lower Klamath NWR and then Malheur NWR in southeast Oregon. It used to be by the second week of February they arrive at McNary NWR in western Walla Walla County. This has not always been the case however. In 1996 there were about 350 Snow Geese arriving on Whitcomb Island on the Columbia River in southern Benton County. By 1999 there were about 900 Snow Geese still arriving second week of February. Then the flock exploded in size to 2,500 and they shifted location to McNary National Wildlife Refuge in Walla Walla County. By 2009 there were 3,000 geese and by 2013 there were more than 6,000 geese. Last February we estimated 8,500 Snow Geese, the sight of which is amazing to see and hear.
So where are these thousands of geese going? Well they are headed north into the Arctic to nest in great colonies on the Tundra. These wonderful wild geese spend the summer raising their young under the mid-night sun. The goslings grow rapidly and by mid-July are covered with gray down and run around with their siblings feeding on grass, tubers, and insects and in turn feeding the millions of mosquitoes. By August they are stretching and limbering up their wings and learning to become great fliers. In September they start drifting south in huge flocks. Photo period or day light length is what these great migrants key in on as they launch their migration south thousands of miles over ancient routes. There is nothing like a huge flock of Snow Geese stacked hundreds of feet into the air circling to land. These geese all have black primaries or flight feathers. They have these black feathers as melanin is ware resistant and allows these geese to migrate great distances without having to molt and grow new feathers. Their bright pink legs and feet along with their pink bills with a dark smile all add up to a unique and beautiful bird. With weather pattern changes and warm air masses blowing north these great flocks of native geese may change their movement patterns over time. So do not miss out. Come see these wonderful untamed geese as they loaf, feed and prepare to head north into the Arctic to lay eggs and raise their young.
Photos by Mike Denny.